Google News August 2021

We keep an eye on Google’s algorithm updates because Google remains, by far, the leading search engine for Internet users across the World. For most websites, it is the single most important source of traffic.

This month, Google revealed that there were 4500 improvements made to search in 2020. Some are made to ranking algorithms, but others concern the appearance of those search results. Both ranking better and getting more attractive snippets can help increase traffic to your site.

August 17th – TITLE Tag Update

The biggest news in August was not a ranking update but a change to the appearance of search results. The TITLE Tag update means that Google may rely less on the TITLE tags of pages to generate links to those pages from the search results.

The details of the update were published in the article, Update to generating page titles on August 24th but the update had started the week before on August 17th.

In the article, Danny Sullivan reminds us that Google normally uses a page’s TITLE tag as the blue link to that page in search results, but it does reserve the right to rewrite this link if it feels that the TITLE tag is not a fair description of the page. It has done so since 2012.  In the example below, Google is using the TITLE tag of our home page as the link to this page in search results: “SEOPress – Best WordPress SEO plugin.”

Snippet for https://www.seopress.org/ in Google.com
Snippet for https://www.seopress.org/ in Google.com

The new update allows Google to draw text from the page to write new link text, particularly drawing from the page title (typically a H1 tag). It appears that the update has also meant that Google is changing more TITLE tags than before. Danny Sullivan, however, insists that the TITLE tag is still used for more than 80% of pages listed in search results.

Reasons that Google gives for not using a TITLE tag provided on a page are

  • The TITLE is too long
  • The TITLE is stuffed with keywords (and not necessarily linked to the content of the page)
  • The TITLE contains “boilerplate” content like “Home” for a home page or “Untitled” for a blog post.

From reports of link text changes, it also appears that Google will generate new link text if the TITLE tag is too short. Ideally TITLE tags should be 50 to 60 characters long.

One of the sites cited as having suffered a big change in Google’s search engine results is Amazon.com. For example, the link to https://www.amazon.com/plasma-tv/s?k=plasma+tv no longer uses the TITLE tag to generate the link, but the text of the H1 tag, “1-16 of 105 results for “plasma tv.”

Before the TITLE tag update
Before the TITLE tag update
After the TITLE tag update
After the TITLE tag update

Criticism of this latest update includes indignation that a computer can decide on the best title for a page over a human editor. More practically, while trying to coin the term “Titlepocalypse”, SEO Lily Ray has also reported on many TITLE changes including illustrations from Google Search Console showing clients losing traffic from Google after the update. This is the main risk from this update. It will not directly affect ranking but can reduce the attractivity of links to users and reduce click-thru rates.

If you want to quickly review the status of your link titles in Google, you can search your site using the “site:” operator plus your domain name to see all the pages indexed by Google and the chosen link text.

Search for all the pages on the seopress.org domain
Search for all the pages on the seopress.org domain

You can also check in Google Search Console to see if you have experienced a drop in CTR (Click-Thru Rates).

Google is already correcting errors highlighted by some SEOs and has promised to keep improving link text generation over time. If you find that Google is ignoring your TITLE tags in links, our advice would be to try and improve your TITLE tags and make sure that your post titles are aligned with what you want to show in TITLE tags. See the advice Google gives in the guide Create good titles and snippets in Search results.

August 24th – End of Link Spam Update

Initially announced on July 26th as a 2-week roll-out, Google announced that the Link Spam update had finished on August 24th.  SEO ranking tools have shown fluctuations in search results over the month until August 24th. All of these changes may have been caused by the Link Spam update, but there is also speculation that there were unrelated, unconfirmed updates around August 6th and August 14th.

Also a reminder that the Page Experience update was launched in June (see our Google News for June 2021) with the information that it would be implemented over several months, taking full effect at the end of August and that could also explain the volatility.

Search volatility in the US for August 2021 according to SEMRush Sensor.
Search volatility in the US for August 2021 according to SEMRush Sensor.

Author.URL Property Added to Article Schema

On August 6th, Google indicated in its What’s New section of Google Search Central that it has added Author.URL as a new, recommended property to the Article schema.

Adding structured data like schema can help Google better understand what pages are about. The Article schema can be used on WordPress posts to ensure that Google finds the post’s title, author, publication date, modification date and preferred images. Previously only the author’s name was required in the Article schema. Adding an author URL may help Google disambiguate authors with the same name or different spellings of their name who contribute to different blogs. For more information about structured data in WordPress, see our article How to add schema markup to WordPress using the SEOPress plugin.

As from SEOPress version 5.1 we have added the Author URL to the Article schema when you implement the schema manually to a post and leave the Post author field empty.

Screen shot of the Structured Data Datatypes metabox in WordPress
Screen shot of the Structured Data Datatypes metabox in WordPress

In June, John Mueller from Google answered a Search Webmaster Hangout question that asked if creating author pages can help ranking and insisted that they were not mandatory but would be good practice for website owners who wanted to increase trust with readers. This seems to say that it would be good practice to use author pages and the Author.URL property in Article schema when a site deals with sensitive YMYL subjects such as health and investment.

Lighthouse Scores DO NOT affect Ranking

On August 26th, John Mueller replied to a Tweet by Shopify engineer Colin Bendell with a reminder that “Lighthouse scores do not affect Google Search.”

Lighthouse is a tool provided by Google to audit web pages in Chrome and also available through the PageSpeed Insights site. One of the features of the tool is to give a total score for the page’s performance from 1 to 100. Although it is good to try and increase the score and the best score is 100, the score itself is not used by Google in ranking algorithms.

PageSpeed Insights report for the Google Developers home page
PageSpeed Insights report for the Google Developers home page

Since the Page experience update this year, however, other scores reported in Lighthouse reports are used to rank pages. These are the Field Data scores for Core Web Vitals. In the example above, the score of 50 does not influence rank, but the Core Web Vitals scores do. The page passes the assessment for First Input Delay (FID) but not for Largest Contentful Paint  (LCP) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). It is unlikely that the page will be considered as offering a good page experience. More about Core Web Vitals and WordPress in our article here.

Colin Bendell was reacting to code circulating online that can be added to web pages to cheat Lighthouse scores by changing the score artificially to 100 (or whatever other score you would like). He warns that SEOs providing this cheat through Shopify plugins will be violating Acceptable Use Policies and will face consequences.

John Mueller suggested that WordPress site owners seeing plugins that offer this cheat should report them to WordPress.

Reminder of Page experience signals used for ranking pages.
Reminder of Page experience signals used for ranking pages.

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